Maha Hassan is among the most prominent Syrian novelists of recent years. Two of her novels, Umbilical Cord and Female Voices were longlisted for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction. She was also awarded the Hellman/Hammett author grant from Human Rights Watch in 2005, as part of a program for persecuted writers. Hassan’s work has been translated into several languages, including English, French, Italian and Kurdish.
Born in Aleppo, Hassan spent much of her childhood in the countryside among her extended Kurdish family, in an environment “full of stories,” as she remembers. There, she found the books, memories and tales that would later inhabit her novels, as did the city of Aleppo.
“I grew up surrounded by storytellers who later found their way into the books that, though they were published in my name, came originally from their worlds, these men and women who made me discover the joy of narration,” Hassan told SyriaUntold in a recent interview.
At the same time, Hassan has been living in France for nearly a decade, and now considers France, like Syria, her homeland. Her life is one of linguistic contradictions, she says: “I live the French language in my daily life, in my friendships, with institutions, administrative transactions, shopping, communicating with official bodies. Meanwhile I inhabit the Arabic language while I’m writing, as writing draws on my memory.”
SyriaUntold spoke with Hassan remotely by phone and email, discussing her overlapping identities in France, her novels and the memories that now color her writing. This conversation has been edited for flow.
You’ve lived in French exile for many years, yet at the same time, your novels portray Syrian and Kurdish characters. You write in Arabic, while people often describe you as a “Kurdish” writer, and you live the everyday details of your life in French. You are sometimes described as a feminist novelist, or even that your work belongs to something called “opposition literature.” And yet you keep your distance from these labels and say that you are afraid of cliches. Why do you steer clear of such labels?
Let me first address the phrase “French exile.” I have been living in France for 18 years. I recently met with a group of French students aged 12-16 years old and I told them that I’ve been here since before they were born. Ironically, they are French without question, while my French-ness is always open to interpretation. Still, my relationship with France is more familiar than my relationship with Syria, which has changed a great deal since I left.
Today, I write about France in my novels with a fluidity that I no longer have when I write about Syria. I confess that I feel dread when I imagine going to Syria, as if I’d be going to a place I do not know, a place where fear and anxiety await me.
Here my life is full of contradictions: I live the French language in my daily life, in my friendships, with institutions, administrative transactions, shopping, communicating with official bodies. Meanwhile I inhabit the Arabic language while I’m writing, as writing draws on my memory and occupies the greatest portion of my life.
I cannot recall who said that writing is an act of recovering memory. Take, for example, Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, or other novels in which it seems the author has not left behind their childhood. That is why I write in Arabic. It is my umbilical cord, that thing with which I bring forth the world of my memory, from that place that is now lost. I integrate this world into this new French space, which I now consider my homeland. This is not to mention that many of my characters and stories are tied to the Kurdish environment as well.
So, steering clear of any narcissism, I consider myself a rather un-marketable template for a woman who writes from one world and lives in another, all while belonging to a third world: that of imagination. It is because of this world that I reject those stereotypical labels in which literary criticism tries to lock me. The function of criticism is to understand and deconstruct a text. But because my own texts are multifaceted and complex, I think it is a mistake to use ready-made tropes in an attempt to understand them. On the contrary, the text will be blown apart. It will be wrongly framed and deprived of its merits and flaws alike.
Many of the characters in your novels belong to the environment in which I was raised—that is, the majority-Kurdish countryside of Afrin. It seems that these characters live in their own special legends, that each of them has a legend that they pass on to others. How has this environment impacted your writing?
One of the lovely ironies of my life of storytelling is that I discovered writing in the village. I was born in the city, so my relationship with the village was that of a tourist, on holidays and special occasions. My own family didn’t have a house in the village. Rather, we implanted ourselves in the home of my aunt or in my uncle’s house.
While my aunt took one of her summer siestas one day, I found a book in her house. It was worn out and the pages had been cut, and nobody knew how it had made its way into her house. Maybe someone had found it and brought it here to use the pages for wrapping sandwiches, or to preserve pistachios and seeds, which was normal in those little dukkan shops that sold seeds to snack on. I sat under the mulberry tree in the garden, and at age nine I discovered the great joy of reading a book outside the school curriculum. It was a collection of short stories called The Wretched of the Earth by Taha Hussein. That’s how I started searching and rummaging through my relatives’ libraries, in a quest to find books that I’d enjoy discovering. I read voraciously, and then I began paying attention to a great spring that surrounded me: the stories of others.
You know these details, and perhaps you lived them yourself—the Kurdish environment is full of stories. I grew up surrounded by storytellers who later found their way into the books that, though they were published in my name, came originally from their worlds, these men and women who made me discover the joy of narration. All I contributed was documentation and technique, but the seed still comes from there, from the village myths and magical tales that those people live and believe.
Perhaps this question is related to the previous one. If you were living in a novel, what would it look like? How do you imagine the plot, or the personality of the writer?
This is a very universal question. It often comes to me in reverse—that is, I already feel like I’m in a novel and I just have to write it down. I say to myself: what if I woke up from this world and found myself outside of the written page? I think the answer is sad and frustrating: I would have left my special kingdom.
But as I let my imagination carry me away now, alongside your question, I imagine the novel as a vast field of daisies, like a Van Gogh painting. There is a freshwater spring, and then a river. On its bank, women wash wool, clothing and children. There are the sounds of artillery from afar. War must also enter the scene, because evil infiltrates our worlds regardless of how fortified they may be.
I think if I could be any one of the characters in the novel, I’d choose to be a 10-year-old girl, living between two extremes: that of the beautiful river where women sing songs and tell beautiful stories, and that of war, with all its blood and corpses. Perhaps because I am curious, I look towards the other side, and I search for what is happening over there. I take on the role of the messenger. Maybe I discover a love affair between a fighter on the frontline and a young woman who washes carpets and sings by the river. I serve them both by sending messages between the two. And as for how I, the narrator of this story, survive the bullets and bombs, that is the gift of storytelling.
When we were preparing for this interview, you told me that you like your earlier novels more, or rather that you were bolder before you became well-known to readers. How so? How did your writing change after you gained a larger audience?
Yes, I find that before my name was known, my writing was more daring and stuck more to the essence of writing, and that the writer’s relationship with knowledge has no intermediary. With a bit of recognition and spread, the “other” can encounter you anywhere, and know who you are.
And so you feel that your space for expression shrinks because the “other” can interfere in your life. Before, I would write things that I’d describe as bold, and there was no way for people to object to them except through academic and serious criticism. Today, a group that has nothing to do with literature or even reading can interfere in my life through social media and dictate what I write.
In other words, whenever one of us becomes well-known in the Arab world, we are subject to the moral authority that is determined by the ordinary people of that world, rather than those who are educated or those working in cultural affairs.
You are a seemingly constant candidate for literary prizes. Discussions surrounding such prizes often center on the “eligibility” of the winners and the ethical nature of the donors. Where do you stand? Do awards add to a writer’s credibility?
As a writer coming from the margins in Syria, I do not belong to the center, governed as it is by politics and social conditions that do not apply to me. At the same time, I’ve suffered from censorship and rejection of my books, as well as a refusal to mention me in the Syrian media. Inclusion of my name on various prize lists did indeed bring me some of my due, as it shed some light on me. That’s the only thing those nominations did for me though, as they later turned out to be inequitable; I have yet to receive one prize despite my name appearing on those lists six times.
In my opinion, this is related to the idea of the group, or of insiders. I can examine the idea from two viewpoints: first, it is good for my texts to receive any attention, as I do not belong to any literary groups or have what you could call “insider” connections. From the second viewpoint, however, these insiders will be content simply to mention my efforts without breaking the taboo of giving an award to a person they don’t know personally or through connections.
In the end, I don’t want to repeat the tired cliche that the readers themselves are my “prize.” But, truly, I am lucky in this sense. There are many university-level research projects, and even master’s and doctoral theses, written about my novels, and there are many readers who approach my work and are indifferent to literary awards.
You have chosen a life of solitude. At least, this is what I understand oftentimes from your posts on Facebook. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but you live alone with your dog in a rural town and you minimize your interaction with other people. Can you talk more about this isolation, and why you’ve chosen to live this way? Why do you avoid the noise of big cities?
I’m a social being by nature. But I choose solitude because I need time to write. In my novel Female Voices I wrote: “I was created to tell stories.” My life is based on writing, and to be honest I am afraid of death, that it will come to me before I finish what I can.
I have many sleepless projects in which I must sacrifice and deprive myself of my lovely, beautiful human relationships. As for dogs, this is another story that bears explaining. I’m in love with dogs, to the point that any dog I encounter feels the same way towards me. I cannot pass by a dog without petting it and being pet in return. Maybe this comes from my childhood in the village, from holding onto my creative self that I see stuck in that place, among the animals and the aromas of firewood for heating the water and food. That enchanting world, from which the dogs seep to me here in cold Europe—it brings me back to the primal warmth that these inspiring creatures hold for me, creatures I trust and who bring me tranquility.
When I lost my father, I received the news alone in Paris, and the only companion there with me in those first moments of shock, of bereavement, shouting and crying was my dog. I was living in Paris at the time, and I found myself telling Quartz (my dog’s name) in French: “Quartz, my father has died!” She moved towards me and placed her face on mine so tenderly, as if to comfort me. I am indebted to these animals, to the unconditional love they give me, their boundless loyalty.
How do you write? Do you have specific habits? Do you have certain techniques that you always follow?
For me, writing is a daily practice. I consider the days in which I haven’t written to have slipped away from my life. I’m always writing when I’m at home. Travel or time with friends lightens the burden of this pleasurable commitment to writing just a little.
The first thing I do in the morning is turn on the computer. Then I prepare some coffee and take a shower, and when the coffee is ready I go to the computer and begin.
I often have notes and little vignettes that I jotted down the previous evening to write in the morning, like a wool-worker who knows where she left off in her knitting, grabs the needles, and carries on. When I stumble over my writing, lose hold of my thoughts and can no longer jot things down, I leave everything and go outside. I remember Nietzsche saying that he thinks while walking, so I walk…I think as I walk, and sometimes I find solutions. I go back and delete much of what I wrote, to start again from some other point. Often I find no solution, so I immerse myself in something else, like watching a movie or cooking a difficult and complicated dish like waraq enab, or I clean the house. I do work that requires physical energy, freeing my thoughts and imagination to regain my mental vitality.
It’s not always easy. Sometimes I don’t understand the reason that the writing has become so difficult, so I leave the work behind altogether and work on something else. This is why each novel I publish isn’t necessarily the latest one I’ve written. I began my latest novel, My Female Peers, more than a decade ago. I rewrote it three times before it came out in its final form. Umbilical Cord was also just a single chapter, and I couldn’t find a publisher. I pushed it aside for years, then I discovered what was missing. And so I wrote the second and third chapters and published it only a few months later with Riad El-Rayyes Books. Meanwhile, I have novels like Female Voices and The Neighborhood of Wonder that I wrote the same year I published them.
As for rituals, my most important one is music. I write to music, in the morning, and I love the daytime and light. I love to write without a wall sitting in my face. I achieved these loves more than five years ago, as my office now overlooks a green space. This helps my imagination move before me, and I can see my characters mess about and frolic freely. They are free from the cement and closed spaces that stifle their lives.